her work, Sarah Sweeney explores the space between
information that is stored in our memory and the information that is
captured by documentary technologies, such as cameras, phones,
stereoscopic images and home videos. She explains: “When a
photograph is taken, or a voice is recorded, or a video is captured,
there is a duplication that occurs. One is a memory stored
internally by the body to be reconstituted later, while the other
takes a physical form and enters into the archive of memory objects.
It is the relationship between the two forms - one living and
malleable, the other rigid and enduring - that my work takes as its
Sweeney’s recent series of work,
comprises large scale archival pigment prints and animations created
from video footage and photographs captured at different sites in
Iceland. Each work is constructed from dozens of images of the
landscape combined with images of tourists taken at the same
location. Sweeney digitally repositions bodies like theatrical props
or mannequins among the the waterfalls, glaciers, and lava fields.
Sweeney says: “Iceland’s tourism board describes their natural
landscapes as a contrast between majestic mountains, picturesque
lagoons, catastrophic glaciers, and raging torrential rivers. Close
to a million tourists overrun Iceland every year hoping to capture
and bring home these landscapes in the form of photographs. In the
photographic series Still I explore the paradox that arises
when hundreds of tourist bodies armed with cameras around their
necks invade these remote landscapes hoping to capture a sense of
wilderness, isolation, and untouched space.”
earned her BA in Studio Art from Williams College and MFA in
Digital Media from Columbia University School of the Arts. Her work
has appeared nationally and internationally in exhibitions at
locations including the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art,
the Los Angeles Center for Digital Art, the New Jersey State Museum,
the Black and White Gallery, and the UCR/California Photography
Museum. Her work was recently featured at Laughter and Forgetting, Bucharest
Art Week, Bucharest, Romania; Screening Scholarship Media
Festival Exhibition, Annenberg School Of
Communication, University Of Pennsylvania; and Slingshot
Festival of Music, Electronic Art, Tech, Film & Comedy, Athens,
Georgia. Other recent exhibitions include Re-Picturing
Union Street Gallery, Chicago Heights, Illinois;
This into That: Found Object Art, Assemblage, and Other
Nave Gallery Annex, Somerville, Massachusetts; The
Dam Show, Reservoir
Art Space, Ridgewood, New York; Selected Art
Faculty Exhibition, Schick Art Gallery, Skidmore College,
Saratoga Springs, New York; public media, private media,
curated by Nick Montfort, Massachusetts
Institute of Technology, Boston, Massachusetts. She is
currently Associate Professor of Digital
Media and Interactive Design in the Art Department
Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, NY.
You can learn more about her at
Sarah Sweeney in
Conversation with curator Rachel Seligman:
RS: Could you start by sharing a little
about your background as an artist?
SS: I grew up with photography because my grandfather was a
serious collector. I was a photographer in high school and I wanted
to be one in college. My junior year I went to the Museum School of
the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. There I studied digital
photography for the first time and I was introduced to the computer.
That was first time I had any type of experience with a computer and
I made a piece that was really important to me. My father died when
I was 17, right before I went to college. I loved photographs but I
felt that in the time after he died photographs let me down. They
had been promised to be memories, and I was terribly disappointed
because I used the same photographs over and over and they stopped
bringing back my father. And I just felt very much like it was
photography's fault that I was losing my memories. With the
computer, I could do things that reflected the way I was thinking
about memories, so my first real piece was called My Father Died
Four Years Ago and it involved removing him from all the
photographs I had of him. And one of the ideas was that you could
see the hole that he left, which was a much more present reality
than actually seeing his body, which was no longer here. So it was a
way to alter the photographs to reflect the present reality, as
opposed to something that was in the past.
Since that time, all of my work has been about exploring
photography without taking photographs. Instead, I work mainly with
found photographs, slides I buy from eBay, things like that. I
hadn't taken photographs in 10 years before the Still series,
and I haven’t taken them in any of my projects since.
RS: What do you think about the
relationship between the photograph as a perceived document – we
like to think they are snapshots of reality – and the fact that your
work involves altering or fabricating the photograph?
SS: My work relies upon that perception
– of photography as reality – because it allows for a sense of
wonder when seeing my work. But I believe that all photography is
completely constructed. While we consider photographs to be really
near and dear (they're the first thing you grab in a fire, right?) I
actually think that photographs are really problematic. I think that
they're false and artificial in ways that we don't readily perceive.
And I think that's one of the reasons all my work is in photography,
and is why I alter them, because I think that when we see
photographs, we don't think about all the ways that they don't
actually equate to reality or memory...
RS: And do you feel like your personal
experience of loss was the moment that you had that realization?
SS: Yes. I think because I love
photography so much, and felt so betrayed.
RS: I'm interested that you had such a
powerful and emotional feeling of betrayal, but that instead of
completely rejecting photography and going in another direction, you
ended up diving in deeply, creating your own path into photography.
SS: Every one of my works questions a different aspect of
photography and our relationship to it. Not to suggest that people
shouldn’t love photography, because I think photography is
incredible. But to see how strange and awkward photography is,
instead of just familiar, and warm, and cuddly, and all those things
people generally feel about it.
Tell me about the current series: how did you come to make this
work, which is different from all your previous work in that you’ve
actually taken these photographs yourself?
SS: People are not still in reality. We don’t see that. We
don't know what that looks like. But in photographs, we totally
accept that moment. Stillness is weird and strange, but to make
people see that, I rotate people 90°,
because then the awkwardness seems more obvious. Also, when you're
vertical you don't notice how rigid our bodies are, but when you
turn them, they're so rigid, almost like rigor mortis. And there are
all these postures and gestures that we're not even conscious of,
because they're so familiar. So by turning people on their side it
becomes unfamiliar, and we start thinking a little bit more about
what it is to be still. The other thing that really got me excited
was taxidermy, and thinking about photography as visual taxidermy.
Because taxidermy has all the same things as rigor mortis, it's
unnatural, but very lifelike.
The related artifice with photography is this sense...
(and that goes back to my dad) …that it can bring someone back. I
think our culture is very obsessed with this.
RS: Did you go to Iceland with this
particular project in mind?
SS: I did. I'd been working with old slides for a long time and
I decided I wanted to work with contemporary images. For this
project I started looking at Flickr, but none of the photographs
were a big enough size for me to use. I decided Iceland was the best
place to go to make my own images because I was looking at a lot of
Caspar David Friedrich, and thinking about the Rückenfigur [a
figure placed in a landscape painting, seen from behind,
contemplating the view]. I knew that Iceland looked a lot like some
Caspar David Friedrich paintings. And one of the best things about
Iceland is that it's so compact, with many different kinds of
landscape. I had a map that I had planned out with 28 sites that I
would visit in 14 days. I would visit a site, and just sit there and
wait for tourists to come. And it was a very odd experience of
feeling like I was hunting tourists, because I'd get very excited
when they would show up en-masse, armed with cameras around
their necks, swarming into these remote landscapes. And then I would
“shoot” them. I also took a lot of photographs of the backgrounds,
so I could put them together piece by piece, because I wanted some
of the work to be really big.
RS: I want to talk a little bit about
the role of humor in this work.
SS: My work is not usually funny; I don't intend it to be funny.
RS: Why do you think that people think
this work is funny?
SS: I think maybe because it's kind of
uncomfortable. If you've ever been to a place and been one of these
people, I'm somewhat poking fun at you. If you’ve ever been a
tourist, you're somewhat implicated through these people. I also
think there is irony in the images: that masses of tourists descend
on these sites to capture a sense of wilderness, isolation, and
RS: It seems to me that this is a
critique of how we flock to places that have been designated as
being special, and we try to capture them in some way, to own them,
to possess them.
SS: Yes, and I don't understand that. I guess that's one of the
weird parts for me about this series, is that I don't usually do
this. If I go to a foreign country, I don’t take images. I don't
take pictures of my children (my husband does). I don't take
pictures of myself, I don't take pictures pretty much at all. So
this is very foreign to me.
there's this sense that because we're taking all these photographs
with cameras that we're not taking anything away from a place.
RS: What do you think about that?
SS: I do think that we are taking something away from a place. I
do. And I think it's strange that on a given day in Iceland,
hundreds of people have the same exact photograph. It seems
incredibly wasteful. It's digital so nobody thinks it's wasteful.
And so part of this trip was a lot about me coming to terms with,
"Is it Okay? Is it not Okay? What does it mean when all these people
travel through this place? What does it mean when you take
something? What does it mean to own a digital piece of a place?" And
so I guess one of the things that occurred to me about this is that
I really think photographs are not necessarily just for memory. I
think they're a lot about communicating what it is we're doing at a
given time. I guess I'm interrogating the act and the culture of
So you think – because you started to allude to this – that it's
about both the moment of taking it, but also the moment of sharing
it with others? Maybe even more about the sharing?
SS: Yes, I think a lot of it is
sharing. And I think the sharing is, on one level, tied to
capitalism and colonialism. "I went to this place. You should see
it... These are the most amazing things..." People who have enough
money go to a country that's not theirs, take photographs (among
other things) from that country, and bring them back as a way to
show off their wealth and power.
RS: Photography as a mode of conquest…
SS: It is a mode of conquest and that's the part that is very
intriguing to me. I’ve read a lot on tourism and conquest. To be in
someone else's country to “experience” it… I’m interested in what
that means, and how the camera becomes a tool in service to the
impulse for control and possession.
But I also don't take photographs of my life now because I find it
to be a really strange practice. You have this very odd moment where
everyone is stopping, becoming still, to take the photograph. At
least for me, that’s very odd. But I love photographs. That's the
paradox for me, because I love photography. And in my work, I'm
trying to bring to the surface some of the paradoxes that exist for
me in photography. We hold photography very close but I feel it
needs to be more closely examined.
This exhibition is funded in part by The Community Exchange
Foundation, Adirondack Studios
New York State Council on The Arts with the support of
Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature. The
Courthouse Gallery hours during exhibitions are Tuesday through
Friday 12 – 5 pm, Saturday 12 – 4 pm, and all other times by
appointment. The Courthouse Gallery is located at the side entrance
of the Old County Courthouse, corner of Canada and Lower Amherst
Streets, Lake George, NY.